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Richard Roundtree, star of Shaft for nearly 50 years, has died at the age of 81

The actor was an icon of Black cinema and is often referred to as the first Black action hero.

Richard Roundtree as Shaft in 1973
Image credit: CBS Studios

The world of film has lost one of its pioneering figures as Richard Roundtree, who is best known for his starring role in the Shaft films, passed away on Tuesday afternoon. He died from pancreatic cancer with his family at his bedside on October 24, 2023 at the age of 81.

Though Shaft was Roundtree’s breakout and most iconic role, his career dates back to early appearances on the American daytime soap As the World Turns in 1956 and included recent roles in 2022’s Moving On and Family Reunion. He remained a fixture on American TV for decades thanks to his roles in Roots, Soul Food, Heroes, and Desperate Housewives. However, to much of the world, he will always be John Shaft, who has often been described as the first Black action hero. Through his role as Shaft, Roundtree personified the blaxploitation film genre and paved the way for generations of Black actors that followed him.

Richard Roundtree’s legacy includes inspiring multiple generations of Black actors. Starting in the 1971 film, Roundtree would portray Shaft in every film and TV series featuring the character, including the 2000 and 2019 sequels starring Samuel L. Jackson, in which Jackson played Roundtree's son.

After news of his death broke, Jackson paid tribute to the star on Instagram by saying “Richard Roundtree, The Prototype, The Best to Ever Do It!! SHAFT, as we know it is & will always be His Creation!! His passing leaves a deep hole not only in my heart, but I’m sure a lotta y’all’s, too.”

Shaft, and Roundtree with him, became a cultural icon in the '70s thanks to Roundtree’s tough-talking, streetwise performance and the film’s Oscar-winning theme song by Issac Hayes. The original film was eventually preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2000. So deep was the cultural impact of Shaft that references and tributes to the character pop up in everything from the Cowboy Bebop anime to Django Unchained.

Richard Roundtree’s agency confirmed his death on Tuesday, saying “His trailblazing career changed the face of entertainment around the globe and his enduring legacy will be felt for generations to come. Our hearts are with his family and loved ones during this difficult time.”

Re-live it all with our guide to how to watch the Shaft movies and his TV show you probably never knew about.